One of the most ubiquitous symbols of the holiday season is the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). Available in whites, pinks, and reds, this Mexican native grows outdoors to as much as 10 feet in height. Most of us, however, are lucky to make it to the New Year with most of the flowers intact. Poinsettias offer a punch of bright, living color during dreary Northern winters so it's not surprising that they are considered a seasonal must have.
Water is the chief culprit in the untimely demise of most poinsettias. Over watering will kill your plant faster than anything else, however, they like humidity. If you like fires or have a wood stove, keep them away from the heat and mist frequently. Water when the soil is dry to the touch and discard excess water. Don't let your plant sit in water, especially in the foil wrap or decorative container.
Another way to beleaguer your poinsettias is by exposing them to drafts. They don't much care whether the draft is from the kitchen door or a heat vent. Swings in temperature tend to stress them.
Place your poinsettia in a bright location; it will hold up better. A southern exposure is the best, especially in December when the days are long and dark. If you want poinsettias for decoration, find it a home during the day where it can be happy in a sunny window, then move it when you can appreciate its holiday spirit.
Unless you have plenty of time to spend, it really doesn't make much sense to try keeping your poinsettia or cultivating it for repeat bloom season after season. However, if you want a challenge, working with a poinsettia should give you a run for your money.
The plant enters a dormant stage once it loses all its leaves. Move it to a cool, ventilated area. As long as the temperature remains at about 60 degrees, it will be fine. Ugly, but fine. It won't need much water at this point, but you'll need to provide about 1/3 of what it was getting. A protected garage or basement works well during this phase of its life.
In early spring, cut it back to the healthiest few branches. (Wear gloves. Some people are sensitive to the white sap.) When you repot your other house plants, re-pot your poinsettia at the same time. A slightly larger pot and any good potting soil is fine. Water and place in a sunny location. As the days lengthen and warm, you should begin to see new growth. Fertilize every few weeks with a good, balanced plant food as you would any other house plant. Keep the plant damp, but not wet, and mist regularly.
In April or May, move your poinsettia outdoors as long as the danger of frost is past. An eastern or southeastern exposure usually provides plenty of bright light but shades it from hot afternoon sun.
Shape the plant by pinching back shoots to force it to get bushier. Without control, poinsettias tend to become rangy and leggy.
While it is actively growing, poinsettias like extra humidity. Misting them makes them very happy. If you have a mister on the back patio and a southeastern exposure, you could have one very happy plant.
In late summer or early fall when the days become cooler, bring it back inside, again placing it in a sunny window. Poinsettias can tolerate coolness and even a bit of frost, but a hard freeze will annihilate them. The optimum temperature is between 65–70 degrees. Reduce watering somewhat at this point.
To force blooming in time for the holidays, poinsettias require short 9–10 hour days. From the first of October to first of December, the plant will set blooms only if it has NO light at night. Put it in complete darkness from about 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. A nearby cabinet or closet would work or you can rig up some kind of covering. At 8 a.m. return it to its sunny window location. It should continue to receive regular feedings until December when you will reduce fertilizing to about a third of previous feedings. Water normally when dry to the touch.
Typically, even seasoned gardeners have difficulty reaching the size and type of blossoms the plant probably had originally when it was purchased. There is a fair amount of work involved trying to bring it through the year, so if you get to December and it looks weak, leggy, and has tiny or no colored bracts, don't feel bad about consigning it to the compost bin and buying another one.
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